Obituary as published in The New York Times, April 11, 2020
Ruth B. Mandel was an infant when she and her parents fled Germany on the eve of World War II. They were among the 937 passengers, almost all of them Jewish refugees, aboard the ocean liner St. Louis on what was often called the Voyage of the Damned.
The Nazis had allowed the ship to sail with the expectation that the Jews would never be allowed to disembark — thus, the Nazis claimed, proving Hitler’s point that Jews were unwanted and justifying his persecution of them.
Indeed, Cuba spurned them. So did the United States and Canada. The ship was forced back to Europe, where roughly a quarter of the passengers would die in Hitler’s death camps.
A lucky few, including Ruth and her parents, made it safely to England. They moved to the United States after the war, and she went on to become director of the influential Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
She also became an official with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and spent years bearing witness, preserving memory and educating new generations about how the past can inform the present.
“I do not know for sure that we learn from the past,” she said in 1999 at the annual Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust commemoration. “I have my doubts that recalling evil can make people good. But at least we have to try. As an act of faith, we have to try.”
Ms. Mandel died at 81 on Saturday at her home in Princeton, N.J. Her daughter, Maud Mandel, who is president of Williams Collegein Massachusetts, said the cause was ovarian cancer.
Ruth Mandel made her name running what is now called the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute. The center, where she was director for two decades starting in the 1970s, became the premiere research and education institution in the country for the study of women in politics.
She was a primary source for reporters writing about that emerging field, and she wrote about it extensively. Her book “In the Running: The New Woman Candidate” (1983) was the first book-length treatment of the subject.
She then became director of the Eagleton Institute itself, serving for 24 years before stepping down in 2019. She further developed programs to demystify the political process and encourage young people to become public leaders. She also began speaking publicly about her family’s experience on the doomed voyage.
“She saw her life’s work as an outgrowth of her origin story,” her daughter said in a phone interview.
“Having been a refugee from World War II, she had a deep personal understanding of what happens when society restrains the rights of people in their midst,” she said. “That shaped her belief in the value of participatory democracy and full inclusion.”
Ruth Mandel was nine months old in 1939 when the St. Louis sailed, too young to have her own memories. But she relived the experience through her parents, who, she said, “spent the rest of their lives” recovering from it — though they never forgot that they had been among the lucky ones.
One lesson Ms. Mandel absorbed was how no one, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, acted on the Jews’ behalf, leaving them adrift on a sea of indifference.
As their ship idled off the Florida coast, they could see the lights of Miami Beach.
“For one brief moment they had seen the shores of America and glimpsed freedom,” Ms. Mandel said at the 1999 commemoration. “The clarity of hindsight tells us that at that moment, people could have been saved; action could have made a difference.”
The fate of the St. Louis inspired a well-received nonfiction book, “Voyage of the Damned” (1974), by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. A partly fictionalized movie with the same name followed in 1976 with an all-star cast that included Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow and Orson Welles. Many reviewers said the movie was melodramatic. Still, Maud Mandel said, she and her mother and grandmother saw it together and sobbed their way through it.
Ruth Blumenstock was born on Aug. 29, 1938, in Vienna to Mechel and Lea (Schmelzer) Blumenstock. (After marrying she would use B, for Blumenstock, as her middle initial.)
After the ill-fated voyage, the family lived in England for nine years before moving to Brooklyn to be near relatives. Mr. Blumenstock found work as a shipping clerk in a box factory. He was later a co-owner of women’s clothing stores, including a boutique that he and his wife ran.
Ruth studied English literature at Brooklyn College, graduating in 1960. She earned a doctorate in English from the University of Connecticut in 1969.
While in graduate school, she met Barrett John Mandel, whom she married in 1961. He is gay, her daughter said, and the couple divorced in 1974 but remained good friends. Even after Mr. Mandel had another partner and Ms. Mandel was married again — to Jeffrey Lucker in 1991 — they stayed close.
After Ms. Mandel’s cancer was diagnosed last year, both Mr. Lucker and Mr. Mandel tended to her. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the New York region in March, Mr. Mandel, who lives in Manhattan, moved in with his former wife and her husband at their home in Princeton. Her daughter joined them this month, and they were all with her when she died.
In addition to them, Ms. Mandel is survived by two grandchildren.
She gravitated to Rutgers after earning her Ph.D. Mr. Mandel was teaching English there, and over the years so would she, as well as politics.
In 1971, Ms. Mandel read that the Eagleton Institute was starting a center on women and politics. She had no political experience, but the idea intrigued her. She went to the institute to volunteer to help out, and soon she was involved in organizing the center. She quickly became a co-director and served as director from 1973 to 1994.
It was an era of great change and ferment, and Ms. Mandel found herself in the right place at the right time.
“This was the moment when Second Wave feminism met electoral politics,” Debbie Walsh, the center’s current director, said in a phone interview.
“Ruth saw the value of having women on the inside of institutions, whether Congress or state legislatures,” she said. “It was about 51 percent of the population having voice and having agency, which Ruth thought would make democracy better and stronger.”
For many years Ms. Mandel never spoke publicly about the voyage of the St. Louis. She considered it too painful, too humiliating and too private. But over time, she said, she realized that she needed to tell her parents’ story. She sought an appointment to the governing board of the Holocaust Museum in 1991 and became more visible on the subjects of refugees and immigrants.
Among the many times she discussed her parents’ experience publicly was in 2011, when she was overseeing a naturalization ceremony at Rutgers for new citizens. She told them that while her parents enjoyed many freedoms in the United States, they were never free from fear.
“Forever traumatized by the nightmare from which they escaped, they kept their heads and their voices down,” Ms. Mandel said. She recalled that when she was younger and protesting the war in Vietnam and signing petitions, her mother warned her, “They’ll have your name, and then they can find you.”
Maud Mandel said of her mother, “She didn’t want to be scared like her parents.” She always took Maud with her to vote and taught her the importance of participatory democracy.
“We can do this, we get to do this,” Ruth Mandel would tell Maud when they were voting. “We are empowered to make the world what we want it to be.”